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A future for all our pasts

Helping our members save the UK’s heritage assets.

Case Study

Tyne Theatre and Opera House: A Dramatic Restoration

Front of a 19th Century theatre. It is quite modest and features double-height, arched windows and patterned brick work

Members Projects in the Spotlight

Tyne Theatre & Opera House Preservation Trust, Newcastle upon Tyne

The Trust supports the conservation and restoration of Tyne Theatre and Opera House and its machinery for the benefit of the public. It also seeks to advance public education in all aspects of the dramatic arts and its production. Built in the 1860s, the theatre features rare Victorian wooden modular stage machinery. In 2023, the Trust completed a year-long project restoring this machinery and researching how it was originally used.

The Building

Newcastle City Council signed the freehold of the building over to the Tyne Theatre and Opera House Preservation Trust in 2008. When SMG Entertainment gave up its leasehold in 2015, the Trust took a risk and set up a subsidiary operating organisation, Tyne Theatre and Opera House Ltd, to operate and manage the building. Currently, although the income covers the daily running costs, extra funding is needed for special projects.

This Grade I listed building was designed by Willian B Parnell for the politician Joseph Cowen in 1867. It is the only known theatre he designed. Cowen, a prominent industrialist (later a radical Liberal politician and journalist) envisioned “a Theatre for everyone”. His theatre had a reputation for showing bold, socially motivated plays, which provided entertainment and education to working-class audiences.

In 1917, the Tyne Theatre and Opera House closed, reopening two years later as Stroll Cinema, Newcastle’s seventh cinema at the time. In the 1970s, the cinema closed, allowing Tyne Theatre Trust to gain permission to reopen the theatre and later purchase the building. Behind the cinema screen, the Victorian stage mechanics were still in place and operational, and were used in performances.

In 1985, the building was awarded Grade I listed status, only for a backstage fire to cause significant damage to the machinery and fly floor later that same year.

In 1985, the building was awarded Grade I listed status, only for a backstage fire to cause significant damage to the machinery and fly floor later that same year. Miraculously, the theatre reopened to the public by the end of the following year, and in mostly operational order.

In 2004, Tyne Theatre and Opera House Preservation Trust, SMG Entertainment, and Addison Properties brokered a deal with Newcastle City Council for the operation and development of the theatre and the development of new flats. Since taking over the building, the Trust has undertaken extensive restoration work, such as repairing the roof and removing asbestos.

The Project

In 2023, the Trust conclude a year-long project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, ‘The Drury Lane of the North’, which had three aims: to create a historic performance calendar, restore the historic stage equipment, and hold an international conference.

A master carpenter has been employed to help restore the machinery. Along with rebuilding a 31ft spindle, a structural raft has been built high above the fly floor, and the five spoked wheels have been reinstalled. The new spindle will have two wheels slotted onto it and hung under the structural raft. When it is roped along with the other five wheels, they will operate large sections of the scenery in the same way that they did in the 1880s. The master carpenter has been making a new ‘thunder run’ on the lower fly floor to produce atmospheric sound effects, using the original hoops to shape the new construction

Sessions with the volunteer team focused on the slots in the stage floor, which were last opened over 40 years ago. The floor was replaced after the 1985 fire with hardwood, giving it incredible durability. However, its weight has meant that it is very difficult to move, and there has also been some warping over the years. Volunteers will replace the flooring with softwood panels and ‘grease’ them with graphite powder, allowing the slots and bridges to move with less physical effort.

So far, the project has engaged 150 volunteers. They include people living locally, from outside Newcastle and abroad, theatre lovers and groups who have not previously involved with the dramatic arts. They have helped research performances, cleaned the stage, lead tours, and learnt how to operate and maintain the machinery, including splicing and knotting ropes.

When complete, the theatre will demonstrate the Victorian stage workings by recreating the plays from the Historic Performance Calendar. However, the number of these shows will be limited due to the need to generate income from the regular event programme.

The Future

As part of this project, the team have been assessing the feasibility of restoring the once-beautiful Saloon, and they hope to secure funding to support this. As only the building’s façade is listed, the Trust plans on turning this into an accessible and versatile area with a performance space which can be hired, providing additional income.

The future holds many possibilities. Finding hidden asbestos under wall panels has taught the Trust that there is often more work involved with developments than first meets the eye. Nevertheless, the organisation’s ambitions are great, and there is talk of restoring the auditorium’s wooden panels, along with refreshing the many bars and making the space more accessible.

A view from the upper balcony to the stage below. There are three tiers of seating, the curtain is blue velvet and the room is decorated with gold details

Further information

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